July 8: In the evening I have dinner at P’s house. It’s a longstanding invitation. P. has been a widower for around three years: the period that, according to the Chinese, bereavement should last. Without the least warning, his wife had been left paralyzed by an embolism. She died a week later without it ever having occurred to P. that someone eighteen years his junior might precede him along that path. Until the mechanism of illness was set in motion, he had never considered the eventuality that she might die first. P. finds it difficult to adapt to his constantly unappeased nostalgia for the intimacy in which he lived with his deceased wife, but copes with it better, and with more humility than any of us would have suspected, given his sensitive and rather unpractical nature.
After the unhappy event, aggravated by the wretched circumstance that, only a few weeks later his first wife — a fragile, unbalanced woman he had divorced decades before, but who continued to depend on him in a number of ways — had taken her own life through a massive overdose of barbiturates, bets were laid about how long he would last. The people who put their money on his collapse felt defrauded, as if his failure to do so sprang from an ominous lack of moral integrity. By contrast, those of us who were closer to him were happily surprised by his sober attitude in the face of those two calamities. Even more so when we saw how meticulously he attended to each and every one of the requirements in his first wife’s will: to be dressed in her best clothes and jewelry, a string quartet to play certain pieces of music, specific flowers (no chrysanthemums) bought; that during the rites, a particular person was to read the funeral prayer she had transcribed and signed, with youthful passion, Dido Forsaken, or the eternal fate of a woman in love; afterwards her oldest and most faithful friends (the list of whom, with a few final alterations, was attached to her last will and testament with the menu for the meal) were to hold a wake, and each say a few words in her honor as a form of farewell. In spite of the effort he put in to locating all these friends, P. was barely able to come up with a dozen. Of the twenty listed in the document, three were dead, some had left the country, others hadn’t been heard of for some time, and yet others had quickly invented excuses for not attending. The latter were no doubt people who had belonged to her circle of friends during the time she and P. were still married, but no longer so at the moment of her death.
P. often seems irritated, discontented, as if life has played him a dirty trick, and yet he is resolute: he doesn’t give in. Lately he has developed an admirable inclination for order, he gets by quite well in his domestic life and is even more rigorous than before about his work schedule. His desire to reintegrate into life has encouraged him to renew former attachments, to telephone his friends rather than waiting for them to call him. He seeks company when he needs it, but never begs or pleads. If he hasn’t quite learned the art of cookery, he can at least prepare a hot meal, something that gives him pleasure and of which he is quite proud, particularly when you remember that his wife used to dress and undress him, put on and take off his shoes, feed him, act as his secretary and, when the need arose, his nurse. In spite of his iron constitution, he has a tendency towards hypochondria
When I arrived I found him seasoning two enormous steaks. The watercress and avocado salad sprinkled with walnuts and toasted almonds was already beautifully presented in a green dish in the shape of a cabbage leaf, beside it stood the pureed potatoes, which only needed to be warmed up, and a small tray of tomatoes, parsley and slices of soft cheese. The kitchen was filled with the splendorous harmonies in E flat of the final section of The Magic Flute. There was a Saturday night feel about it all. P. has lived on the first floor of the same old house for a little over forty-five years. The ceilings are high with exposed beams, the is kitchen large in comparison with the other rooms (as often happens with building cut up and patched back together to form a number of residences) with a door leading onto the patio, and so the greater part of his time is spent in that kitchen, or on the patio itself, where he has installed some pleasant, comfortable garden furniture beneath a rustic awning of slatted planks. Although the night is clear, we don’t eat outside, as has we have done in the past, but in the kitchen. To the left is a living room that had originally been a porch, in which there are just two armchairs facing each other and an old pianola, the only superfluous ornament being his diploma in chemical engineering — a profession he never exercised — in an elaborate silver frame.
P. has just gotten over a severe cold and fears a relapse. There’s nothing worse than nodular bronchitis, he tells me while moving an antiquated typewriter he never uses (he can’t concentrate without a Parker 51 in his hand) and spreading a delicate cambric cloth, hand-embroidered with heraldic butterflies, over the table. His father had enjoyed a good social position before the large toy store that had been the source of the family fortune went bankrupt, and he still possesses remnants of that former wealth, such as the pianola, the glassware, the linen, the paintings (gradually sold off, the last being a small seascape by Boggio dated 1909), and the boon of an income on which he has so far managed to survive, and pay the fees of the rest home where his old nanny now lives.
During the dessert course — fruit, yoghurt, ice cream and almond biscuits—our conversation was suddenly interrupted by a series of strange, querulous grunts, like those of a sick animal. What’s that? I asked. Oh nothing, just problems upstairs, he said cautiously raising his eyes to mine. The grunts began to die down. P. folded his serviette and carefully smoothed it out. We continued our conversation. A few minutes later, the grunts changed into a single grating note stuck in a human—clearly not animal—throat. A door slammed. Then silence. P. rapped his fingers furiously on the tabletop, stood up, and began to clear the plates. The muscles of his face were tense, his eyes glazed, absent, his shoulders blades quivered, his lips were white. The sounds, which seemed to have required the full force of the lungs to finally burst forth, culminated in a long, long dirge that entered through the window and circled the room, rising and falling, turning on itself, pressing on the air.
Avoiding my terrified gaze, P. offers me a little more ice cream. I shake my head. He pats my shoulder and puts a finger to his lips. Who is he attempting to silence with that gesture, given that I can’t even think of a single word to say? I recall the upstairs tenant, a Russian, Polish, Lithuanian or all-of-the-above woman who has lived in the house for over thirty years. All I know of her is that she’s eccentric, and has an uncaring daughter who lives in the hope that, on one of her occasional visits to take her mother out in in her wheelchair, she will find her dead in the bed.
I remember the morning I went to the roof terrace with P., who was carrying a load of laundry to hang out in the sun. The windows were wide open, an opportune breeze was blowing the curtains aside, P. had his back turned to me, so I was able to spy right into the apartment at my leisure. I remember the gold-striped wallpaper, the thick-pile carpet, chairs with carved backrests, large, heavy paintings of mythological scenes, glass display cabinets containing medals, peacocks, miniature shepherds, and candy boxes adorned with tiny mirrors. On a corner table, under a lamp with a plaster base in the form of a lily was a dirty plate on which sat a peeled orange and a peach with a bite taken out of it. Moving towards the second window, I made out a brass bed in which, propped up on two pillows, one hand under her cheek, a woman was, apparently, sleeping, her eyes half open, staring, as the eyes of the dead sometimes are; she was wearing a see-through nightgown rolled up around her waist. I looked in horror at the almost bald scalp with tufts of red hair at the crown, her sagging breasts, the wide apart legs, the veined thighs, and between them the dark bulge with its halo of gray hair surrounding what must have been the forgotten, exposed lips of her sex. Clothes were scattered on the floor, a pair of silk stockings hung from a chair, the atmosphere inside seemed acrid, dense, suffocating. The last thing I saw before P. turned to tell me he had finished was a large male tabby cat curling up on the bed
P. grabbed a knife by its bone handle, as if ready to use it as a weapon, then immediately let it fall. He picked up his wine glass and twirled it between his fingers. It was a beautiful crystal vessel in a strange shade of turquoise. Contemplating the pattern of the cut glass, he pursed his lips, clenched his jaws, and threw back his head. A heavy sigh hollowed the outline of his chest above the incipient belly whose sudden appearance he has lately been grumbling about. At the instant the howls — that is what they had become — reached their highest pitch, P. flung the glass at a cupboard. I closed my eyes, expecting it to shatter, but it did nothing more than break into three beautiful, resplendent pieces. A sweet-natured, restrained, circumspect man whose company generally left one calmer, P. has completely lost control.
He runs outside and, in the light of the crescent moon, makes a lap of the patio. He bows his head and begins to strike it repeatedly with the flat of his hand. Then he stretches up his arms and implores: For God’s sake! For God’s sake! Are you trying to kill me, Wanda? Or frighten away my guests? Send them running for the door? I had never seen him like that before. I was terrified, didn’t know what to do, what to think.
The cries faltered, faded away like the sound of a train rounding a curve and then disappearing from sight. P. came back inside. Looking directly at me, and indicating the chair from which I had sprung, he said, Don’t worry. Sit down. We both sat. Regarding our reflections in the window, we stayed there, motionless, so silent that it took no effort of attention to hear the still unmitigated pounding of our two hearts. Then, as if from another world, diffusing into the silence, the subtle creaks of the furniture and shrill croaking of tree frogs became audible in the disturbing still of the night.
I catch sight of something snaking downwards between the corner of the house and the branches of a spindly tree, and eventually realize it is a basket tied to a length of cord. His eyes fixed on the receptacle, P. stands and, with a resigned sigh, carefully walks along the passage leading to the living room. It seems as if his knees are dancing. He bends down and inspects the contents of a cabinet, his stiffness and the effort to remain calm making him clumsy. A pile of newspapers and cardboard come tumbling down. I hear a tinkling of bottles and glassware. From the very back of the cabinet he extracts a small bottle of mint liqueur. Quick as a flash, he runs to place it in the basket, and tugs on the cord. The basket rocks gently and is hauled up. It disappears.
She doesn’t raise a hell often, P. said hoarsely — he had to cough and clear his throat to get his voice out — but when she does, it’s unbearable… She’s turned into a decrepit old woman, who lives surrounded by filth and trash. And to think that only a few years back she was a beauty, coming and going in a stunning lilac convertible, perfectly made-up, perfumed, dazzling, full of fantastic ideas and excesses, taking gambles on sex, love affairs, business deals, insatiable in all three, until she lost her wits. He leaned forward with a confidential air. She claims she’s my singing bird, a bird that sings lullabies to soften my heart. Only hard liquor, any hard liquor, calms her down.
Gradually the evening becomes as pleasant, as convivial as before. P. lights a cigar, makes jokes in a tone somewhere between ironic and jolly. He holds my interest telling me about the time in his youth when, due to a difference of opinion with his tyrannical father (nowadays, when he looks at things calmly, without rebellion, he knows his poor father had not been a tyrant), the urge to feel himself really experiencing life, plus the desire to have an exotic job on his CV, he had left behind the comfort of the paternal home to work in a horseracing stable. At night he would drop completely exhausted onto his bed in the bunkhouse without even eating at the communal table or taking off his boots. For years afterwards, he could still feel that tension in his muscles, even though they no longer experienced such wear and tear. Once the job had come to an end, he had returned, bored rather than glorious, to the protection of the family home and his classes. For years he had been unable to expunge the stench of stable that oozed from every pore in his body. So, why am I telling you all this? Ah yes, that’s it. I remember now. The rumor went around that Jacinto, one of the jockeys, was a medium. Since his workmates never tired of taunting and making fun of him, he decided to gather them together in the tack room one night to give a demonstration. After a few jerks and a little incoherent babbling, his breathing became very irregular. He gulped for air, wiped his hand across his brow or pressed it to his chest as if suffering intense pain. His pupils were dilated, cataleptic, he stared fixedly like a bird of prey. One moment, he was prancing, his toes pointing outwards; the next, he was rocking back and forth, as if praying. We’d just about had our fill of all this when, emerging from his bleak silence, he began to recite entire passages of Leviticus on the prohibitions against eating dead animal flesh and blood-letting with a knife, followed, in a strangulated voice, by a list of the atrocious punishments meted out to those found guilty of gluttony and perverse sexual acts. No surprise there; he was very prudish and, terrified of gaining weight, ate only vegetables and fruit. He had brought along a piece of chalk and hurriedly sketched a skull and something that looked like a cauldron on the wall. When he came out of his trance, he was most definite that he was not the author of those marks, they had been made by the spirit who had inhabited him; he had no responsibility for anything he might have said or done, but what was drawn there could only be the fifth circle of hell in which all unbelievers and sinners would burn. I was impressed, moved said P. Whenever I recall it all, he went on, it’s as if I’m still there! As for the others, they realized that in future they had to watch their step, take him seriously.
Of all the people who worked there, he said, crossing his knees, Jacinto was the only one he had managed to become friendly with. He was a very imaginative man, he used to draw horses on any scrap of paper that came to hand, was particular about whom he associated with. Since he had been lucky in his early days as a jockey — this good fortune hadn’t lasted long — he had a wealth of anecdotes about the time he’d spent touring American and Canadian racetracks, carrying off prizes. His two brothers exercised a great deal of power over him. Every time they came to visit, they would empty his pockets to pay their debts and continue their carousals. Some time later, he flew to Colón to marry a Panamanian girl he’d met one weekend, and who had mailed him letters and photos over the subsequent days. The first photograph was very small, then, when he begged for something larger, she speedily sent him another with an effusive dedication. More photos, more letters followed, and these, added to the feeling that the time was ripe to put the Canal between himself and his brothers, had encouraged him to take the leap.
Not long after Jacinto’s departure, P. had received a letter saying that the wedding had gone off in great style, his wife was loving, hard-working, and that they were as happy as could be; they planned to move to Bilbao, where he had been contracted as a riding master in a military academy. In the postscript, he related that a spiritualist society based in Cartagena had invited him to the annual meeting of their most select members from all over the world. He hadn’t received any more letters from Jacinto for a long time, but a few years ago had heard, via a former vet at the stables, that he had two daughters, various grandchildren, and was living in Springfield, Illinois, where he had a lovely home and enjoyed a reputation for distance healing. P. had loved him the way you love simple people who, when you get to know them better, are not simple at all. In the vision of the rebel he had been in at that time, that man encapsulated a certain moral substance. A moral substance he had then — he blushed to think of it now —associated with limited intellect, I want you to understand that phrase in the most positive light, free from narrow-minded prejudice. As a way of seeing things, it was ingenuous, if not completely ridiculous. But anyway, he added, the most admirable thing about Jacinto wasn’t so much his simplicity as his obstinacy and stoicism, the sibylline patience he’d employed in avoiding, almost without trying, life’s great and not so great deceits. Despite having a mother who was almost, but not quite an alcoholic, a villainous father who had disappeared off the scene at the first opportunity, despicable brothers; despite living in a poverty-stricken shantytown, in an unpromising environment; despite certain dire circumstances, the many humiliations, nothing, absolutely nothing, had managed to shake his faith. His faith in what? In himself, in his powers, in his destiny, his luck… Yes, his faith, his guileless, unshakable faith that he would escape all that, and, as in fact was the case, remain more or less pure and light of heart. And that, said P., for the voracious investigator of the enigmas of characterology I was at that time, was inevitably interesting, even seductive.
At that time? And now? I asked with a smile. He closed one eye, took a deep drag on his cigar. Now? Well, to tell the truth, it’s the same now as it ever was. He puffed out his cheeks, enjoying the smoke, and then expelled it from his mouth with a cough. Today is ever always, he muttered. It was a phrase frequently to be found on his lips.
Translated by Christina MacSweeney